Book Review: “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion is a fairly recent nonfiction work by the prolific evolutionary biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins. Published in 2006, 30 years after he rose to prominence with the work for which he is best known and which I highly recommend, The Selfish Gene, there is only a little biology to be found on the pages of the The God Delusion. Drawing from well-documented anecdotal evidence and swelling with reason rigorously applied, the book is an orderly and unapologetic assault on belief in God, organized Abrahamic religion, and a culture that sheepishly looks the other way when confronted with either.

A common criticism of Dawkins is that he’s just so nasty when he dissects religiosity; why, ask the faint of conviction, can’t he just leave well enough alone, or at least be respectful when he can’t? Having read several of his books, I can safely declare that Dawkins is actually eminently reasonable. He is deferential to individuals he respects, admits when he’s at risk of speculating more than analyzing, and draws distinction between harmless naivete and menacing intent. He successfully identifies real harms derived from faith-based world views and religious institutions and makes a case for his politely and eloquently expressed incredulity and outrage at them. A careful reading of the The God Delusion should convince the thoughtful believer, explicitly his target audience, not only of atheism but of his brand of powerful evangelistic atheism. Rather than respecting faith, we should all become foot soldiers in the war to eradicate it.

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contraception, gay marriage, and global warming

In absolute defiance of common sense, the contraception “debate” that I was hesitant to write about — twice — seems to continue, at least by proxy. On leap day, Rush Limbaugh weighed in on that woman who was denied to speak at the House panel ostensibly about birth control. As is usual, Rush Limbaugh had nothing valuable to add to the discussion, but his particular word choice led to controversy and an incredible flight of advertisers from his so-called Excellence In Broadcasting network. His joke of an apology was summarily dismissed and Jon Stewart brilliantly ridiculed the whole mess. It’s so bad that now other right-wing talk radio stars are being targeted for sponsorship withholding.

But while Rush’s particular comments appear to be a lightning rod for focused criticism, the spirit of his remarks forms the cornerstone of conservative opposition to publicly underwritten or otherwise widely accessible birth control. It cannot be that the right protests government spending per se, since it tends as a rule to support robust defense spending, foreign intervention, big oil subsides along with increased and oversight-free drilling, expensive tax cuts for the wealthy, and so on. The BBC has a lovely summary of the major arguments against contraception:

  • Contraception is inherently wrong because it is unnatural, anti-life, and separates sex from reproduction.
  • Contraception leads to negative consequences since it prevents potentially useful individuals from being born, can be used for social engineering or eugenics, and carries health risks.
  • Contraception promotes “immoral behaviour” by encouraging marriage-free sex primarily for pleasure.

Let’s consider these points in turn.

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who are the republicans kidding in the contraception debate?

I wrote last week about the controversy over the administration’s rule that originally mandated Catholic-affiliated institutions provide their employees with insurance that covers contraceptives, which was later revised under a hail of holy bullets to require the insurance companies themselves to provide contraceptives directly to employees of impacted organizations. This compromise seemed so reasonable that I expected the issue to go away quickly. In fact, according to Joan Walsh, a host of Catholic organizations approved of the altered rule, “including the Catholic Health Association, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and Catholic Charities USA,” and only the bishops remain steadfast in their condemnation. According to their statement, issued shortly after word of the change was announced eight days ago, “the only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.” That seems to imply they want the rule to go away for everyone, not just Catholics. I’m as surprised as I am sure you are to learn the Catholic church might suggest something that seems on it’s face to be a ridiculous idea.

Actually, it isn’t just the bishops who persist in maintaining opposition to the contraception rule. Perhaps enabled by the continuing attacks from the Catholic church, the republicans have continued to take to the media to push back. Sean Hannity assembled an all-male panel of religious figures the night of the announcement, who compared the administration to Nazi Germany and claimed they would go to prison or even sacrifice their lives over “the war on religion.” (John Stewart’s excellent take on this panel is a must-watch.) Last Thursday, Foster Friess, who probably sacrificed a lucrative franchise of fast food joints named after himself to instead become a millionaire mutual fund owner and a Rick Santorum supporter and bankroller, told MSNBC that back in his day, “they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”

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the catholic birth control controversy

I didn’t really want to weigh in on the recent scandal about forcing Catholic-run institutions, like universities and health charities, to provide birth control to women. But it turns out this is a thorny issue that has gotten a lot of press, and most of it seems subpar. If you want a job done right…

The issue is that the Catholic church has a religiously based objection to birth control: its official policy is that “any action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [sexual intercourse], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is “sinful” on the basis that it “is in conflict with God’s laws.” I will not address this position on its merits because it has none, so instead, let us assume it is a fact and proceed.

The first amendment is quite clear that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and religious freedom is one of the most jealously defended rights in America. Forcing a religious establishment to engage in behaviour that it finds to be “sinful” and “in conflict with God’s laws” clearly seems to make difficult the free exercise of not engaging in sin and following God’s laws. One counterargument is that no one is forcing Catholic women to use birth control, and that it should be up to them to do the honourable, guilty Catholic thing and bring that damned accident to term (read: post-collegiate job interviews); but in practice, given that a vast majority of Catholics use birth control despite its sinful nature, the church will end up directly paying for something it finds abominable under this rule. That means individual pharmacists filling prescriptions for the morning-after pill against their consciences, to say nothing of selling condoms and the pill to insured employees, etc. So I understand the rancor.

But consider the flip side of this argument. The first amendment prohibits any law “respecting an establishment of religion” too. Allowing a special exemption to a rule the rest of America has to follow on the basis of a religious belief seems as much a violation of the first amendment as the requirement was in the first place. Salon‘s Joan Walsh recently articulated a point that had occurred to me as well: suppose the Catholics had objections against child labour and occupational safety laws, to use her example. Would we then similarly grant them an exemption and let their altar boys into the coal mines? Then again, juvenile coal mining would never be an issue, since the same bishopric now crying foul about sinful behaviour have been putting those altar boys to a very different kind of use for the last few decades.

In response to the loud whining about this rule leveled not just by the child-molesting, latin-chanting, zombie-worshiping monotheists, but also by leading republicans (including Rick Santorum and the House Speaker), the Obama administration has changed the rule: now objecting organizations need not provide coverage, and instead women can get it directly from insurance providers. This strikes me as a reasonable compromise, except that, as NPR points out, many Catholic organizations are self-insured, meaning the rule change has no effect for them. And as that same NPR piece documents, not all Catholics are placated by this choice. Indeed, Rick Santorum still maintains that birth control shouldn’t even be a health insurance issue since it is comprised of “relatively small expenditures.” Nothing like Viagra, right Rick?

Really, this issue serves to underscore how unworkable partial health regulation is. Obamacare is the underlying justification for this rule, but if the administration really wanted to ensure health access, it would have demanded stricter legislative regulation on coverage if not a public option outright. Then the answer to this and related dilemmas wouldn’t be a change of the rule, but an option to abandon Catholic coverage entirely. By leaving health care to the private sector, there is still every possibility that market forces will leave gaps in coverage that government insurance would not abide. Of course the question remains whether a public option as a coequal to the private options could be competitive without being an unsustainable subsidy. The question of Obamacare generally is one I plan to explore iff it survives its pending Supreme Court challenge to be argued next month. Stay tuned.

Supreme Court unanimously supports arbitrary discrimination in churches

In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court today held (pdf) that churches are free to hire and fire ‘ministers’ without regard to anti-discrimination law. At issue was the case of Cheryl Perich, a teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School in a suburb of Detroit. She developed narcolepsy and began the 2004-2005 school year on medical leave. After a while, Perich announced her fitness and intent to return, but school administrators seem to have convinced the congregation that this was unlikely to be true, and it offered to pay some of her medical expenses if she would resign: pure Christian love. Perich refused and instead obtained a doctor’s note certifying her again to work by late February, but the school had already contracted another teacher to replace her and seemed intent to block her. Perich appeared on the first day she was certified to work again, but was asked to leave and told she was likely to be fired. She responded by threatening legal action under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chief Justice Roberts notes in the unanimous opinion that her termination letter was quick to follow, citing as grounds “Perich’s ‘insubordination and disruptive behavior,’ as well as the damage she had done to her ‘working relationship’ with the school by ‘threatening to take legal action.’”

Roberts writes for the Court that ever since the Civil Rights Act, there has been a ‘ministerial exception’ for employment discrimination prevention, which he defends at length (more on that shortly). Because Perich conducts religious instruction 45 minutes every day and attends a weekly religious meeting with her class; and because her title of “called” teacher means that the Lutherans believe she has been literally called by God (and the congregation) to her position and was required to take some religious instruction herself, unlike “lay” teachers the school also sometimes employs to perform many of the same religious functions when God hasn’t gotten around to calling someone; and the fact that the majority of her instruction is in a wide variety of secular matters, owing to her four-year run as a kindergarten teacher and most recent year in the fourth grade, notwithstanding; the Court decided that she is a ‘minister.’ Indeed, in a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas notes that it ought to be up to the church to decide who is and is not a minister. And in a concurring opinion written by Alito and joined by Kagan (that’s right, Alito and Kagan agreeing on a concurring opinion!), the Justices argue that the term ‘minister’ itself ought not to be used at all, since many religions don’t have such a term.

My main issue with this ruling is that it smells like melodramatic bullshit. Roberts spends pages talking about the historical rationale for and the application of the first amendment, going from implementation failings of the magna carta’s promises of popular freedom to issues about territorial governance to clashes between slave owners and abolitionists to issues of property rights. Roberts and Alito both avoid the obvious likelihood that this isn’t really about the need for religions to have the power to choose their ministers free of governmental meddling, the latter opinion expressly prohibiting an inquiry to determine whether that argument isn’t just a convenient excuse, a ‘pretext for discrimination,’ since that would require making ‘a judgment about church doctrine.’ But isn’t that really the point?

Here we have a woman who is going to be terminated first for having a medical condition and second for trying to sue over that attempt to terminate her since All Good Lutherans settle their disputes within the church. The merits of the ADA suit aren’t even addressed in this decision; the suit simply is dropped since this school teacher is actually a ‘minister’ because she prays with her class and teaches them about God 15% of the time in a church-run school. Do we really suppose the Lutherans want to fire this woman because narcolepsy is a sign of satanic possession, or because their eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt not sleep on thine job’? But Roberts waxes poetic about what an order to reinstate, or even pay damages to, the complainant would mean: “Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

But how far do we take this? Couldn’t this church fire anyone it pleases and claim immunity to accountability since it might be that doctrine supports the decision? Is there not now an incentive, under the concurring opinions, for faith-based organizations to label anyone a ‘minister’ (or corresponding title) in order to secure legal exemption for civil wrongdoing? Roberts condescendingly refutes this argument that the Court’s decision opens the door to ‘a parade of horribles,’ dispelling the spectre of church-and-hence-state-sanctioned child-molesting priests (never could happen!) by explicitly noting that criminal acts and police investigations are not granted this blanket immunity and absolute prohibition, respectively, under this ruling. But a host of noncriminal activities appear to be fair game, modern civil rights and fair employment legislation notwithstanding, under this unanimous decision; and all thanks to an amendment which sought, according at least to Roberts’s own opinion, mainly to prohibit the government from installing its own religious leaders. Is that really the only thing that makes religious groups more sacred (forgive the pun) than every other social organization recognized by law and answerable to the ADA?

Some experts are not pleased. As usual, Nina Totenberg at NPR did some excellent journalism (increasingly a rarity at the offices of her august employer) to find out what people who matter think about this:

“It’s unanimous that she counts as a minister, it’s unanimous that ministers can’t sue, it’s unanimous that it doesn’t matter that whether the church had a religious reason or not,” [University of Virginia law professor Douglas] Laycock said. “The courts can’t inquire into that. That’s the story here today.”

“When the court says you can have no inquiry into whether this religious reason is pretextual and just a cover for some kind of discrimination, that’s a big deal,” [George Washington University law professor Ira Lupu] said.

The only silver lining is that this decision might not carry much sway as a precedent. The majority opinion was clear that while Perich is a minister, the Court is not establishing a minister test with this ruling. Still, it is clear that our secular democracy still has a healthy — even unanimous — respect for faith, and common sense and civil rights be damned.